The Struggle to Shift the Immigration Narrative

Thanks to the Republican resentment machine, the 2008 presidential contest is shaping up to be a referendum on immigration, and, in an effort to differentiate themselves from one another, Democrats are buying into the story as the Republicans have framed it -- which happens to be a perfect wedge issue for cleaving apart the Democratic base. In the last two Democratic presidential debates, first Hillary Clinton, then Barack Obama were excoriated for fumbling their answers to the question of driver's licenses for undocumented workers. Yet, for Iowa's likely Democratic caucus-goers, immigration barely ranks among the top 10 issues, according to a poll by the University of Iowa, which found that only 2.4 percent of caucus-goers claimed immigration as their top issue.

The tale of perils posed by immigrants to hardworking Americans is a false issue trumped up by Republicans as a terrific diversion from the woes of war and a tanking economy. It's scapegoating at its most rank. So why do Democrats buy in? In that same University of Iowa poll, 85 percent of likely Democratic caucus-goers said that a candidate's position on immigration was "important" or "very important" to them. In other words, although Democratic voters are presently unlikely to see immigrants as a big threat to their well-being, most acknowledge that the immigration system needs fixing.

At a breakfast meeting with journalists last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the immigration issue into perspective, pointing out that data do not bear out claims of massive job losses due to immigration or trade deals such as NAFTA. "How many people in America think they lost their job due to trade or immigration? Many more than who have, but it doesn't matter; that's what the perception is," she said. "The perception is that people are getting left behind, and for some reason, they think that these immigrants are taking their jobs."

It's just the kind of issue that plays to tensions that already exist within the Democratic Party. The story of the immigrant as an economic threat often plays well among those African Americans who find themselves trapped at the bottom of the economy, and threatens to pit the Democrats' black constituency against its brown one. Just as Republicans once used social issues -- particularly abortion -- to bust up the Democrats' hold on Roman Catholic voters, now they use immigration in an effort to divide the non-white portion of the Democratic coalition. Within the labor movement (another critical element of the Democratic base) immigration has long caused consternation, with certain bosses seeing the future of labor in the immigrant workforce, while many of the rank-and-file remain dubious. Fear of immigrants, if stoked well, could peel off a share of disgruntled union members, much as anti-abortion sentiment won older, blue-collar Catholics -- traditional Democrats -- for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Regardless of who wins the Democratic nomination, you can bet that whatever he or she says about immigration in the primary race can and will be held against her or him in the general election. And that's where it gets really dicey, thanks to those pesky swing voters. While, nationwide, only 14 percent of Democrats rank immigration as their top first or second issue, the number climbs to 27 percent among independents, according to a Nov. 5 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. (Thirty-eight percent of Republicans rank immigration as their No. 1 or No. 2 issue.)

Why, then, do the Democrats fail to advance and assiduously flog narratives of their own? When confronted with a question like the driver's license conundrum, Democrats must take the opportunity to immediately call the audience's attention to the fact that the issue is framed in a way that is designed to divide Americans. Imagine a candidate saying, "You know, driver's licenses for undocumented workers wouldn't even be an issue if we had real immigration reform. But the people who want to make a big deal over driver's licenses are the same ones who kept us from fixing the system. They're the same people who brought you the mortgage mess, drove up gas prices, and looted the treasury on behalf of private contractors like Halliburton. And they made a lot of people too scared to speak up about any of it by tearing up the Constitution."

Pelosi explained that "until we have a progressive economic agenda that takes away some of the apprehension that people have about their own economic security," comprehensive immigration reform is unlikely to win the day. In other words, the immigrant as bogey man is likely to persist throughout the campaign. It will be up to the Democrats to change the subject from immigration to that economic agenda -- which by Election Day may need to look like the New Deal (complete with the WPA).

If Democrats accept the immigration narrative and continue to argue about the economy on the terms laid out by Republicans, they do so at their peril. However unhappy they are with the president or with the GOP culture of corruption, the electorate faces an economy that is sliding quickly, making immigrants an easy target. When the chairman of the Federal Reserve begins throwing around the "R" word -- recession -- as Ben Bernanke did last week, you know it's serious. How many more foreclosures will hit before Election Day?

It's time for Democrats to write a new script -- and quickly.

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